Yes, it is true. I boycotted Whole Foods Market , for quite some time…even after they graced Reno with a nice big store a few years back. I was very upset with Whole Foods Market for one reason, okay, two reasons only. Reason one: I felt they acquired Wild Oats market in a very unfair and questionable fashion. Reason two: their labeling practice was not clear and easy for customers like me to understand what is my food. This story is history now and it led me to complain to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after I did some homework/research. Moral of the story, if you don’t like it, then either walk away or do some work, but most of all…don’t blindly trust.Photo courtesy of marciahameijnck.blogspot.com
Have seat, here’s the story…
Once upon a time I attempted to purchase 365 Brand chocolate chips for my peanut, tree nut, dairy, sesame, poppy, and then sunflower, flax seed and egg allergic child. I simply wanted to know if there were any risks of “may contain” and “manufactured in the same facility”. The Food Allergy Labeling Consumer Protection Act was passed into Federal Law in 2006 and our new Whole Foods Market opened up in the summer of 2008. This law required manufacturers to clearly display in lay terms the eight major allergens if they are used in product. “May contain” and “manufactured in the same facility” are voluntary labels.
I bought a bag of chocolate chips that was free of my son’s allergens. I then zipped home to log onto the the Whole Foods Market website to learn about their allergen policy. Barrier to Information #1: The website had a technical error: you could see the link for allergen information but could not actually click on it. Barrier to Information #2: There was no phone number to call to speak to a human to report this error or ask any questions..only an email contact form. I reported the error and within days it was corrected. Barrier to Information #3: Once I was able to click on their allergen statement the direction was to contact the store to ask them to about ingredient questions. Odd. Very odd I thought. But, never-the-less, I followed instruction and trotted back down to the store. Barrier to Information #4: I spoke to the store manager who is fabulous but looked at me kindly and explained he has no idea of how each product in his store is produced but would fax his distributor on my behalf since the Whole Foods website instructed so.
Unhappy and in need of chocolate chips, I decided to do some research to just see if Whole Foods Markets could live up their policy and tell me what are in their store branded products. I purchased two more products; crackers and cookies from their 365 brand. But this time, I not only asked my Reno Store, I called the Berkeley and Walnut Creek, CA stores too with this question since I visit those stores when I am in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I gave them six months to answer me. I just wanted to know if these products could possibly contain my child’s allergens, where they produced on a dedicated line and where his allergens manufactured in the same facility?
The Berkeley store said they had an amazing employee who called me back with more specific questions and promised to find my answers. The Walnut Creek store had an employee who was a dietician who said she would call me back too.
After six months, the phone never rang from any Whole Foods Market stores.
So, I called the FDA to complain. Whole Foods Market was completely within the law by not indicating any sort of “may contain” or “manufactured…” statement. BUT..the agent said that not being able to speak to anyone was not good practice and not being able to ask a question was not good practice. He said that large companies wait until there is a problem before they change policy and labeling sometimes. Even if it is at the expense of someone’s health. He then went to on advise me to stop buying manufactured foods if my children’s food allergy lists were that long and serious. He explained FDA Enforcement and the amount of errors they must deal with. He really scared me into sticking with my mostly homemade items. He did not live in a pretty world.
I was still unhappy with Whole Foods Markets inability to answer my questions and I did send them an email about this. They answered back by stating that they use “Good Manufacturing” procedures but didn’t give me any details or answers to my ingredient questions.
About three months later, I decided to go into the Reno Wholes Foods Market since I was buying my specialty items in CA and that was getting harder and harder. Lo and behold, their labeling was changed! May contain statements were not printed on these three items!
Made me happy? Yes!
Did Mr. FDA have a chat with Whole Foods Market? I’ll never know and don’t care. I lifted my boycott and am a happy Whole Foods Market shopper for my specialty items. No matter what, I try to buy local from non-franchises if possible (I’m hard to please sometimes aren’t I)?
End of the story: Know the risks of manufactured foods, do your homework and sign up for FDA Enforcement notices..they will knock your socks off.